Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Twenty-five years of Internet freedom, nukes in the basement and the big threat to Apple that nobody's talking about. An entire diary without mentioning the M word, in fact

Monday 16/10/2006

There's no exact day to mark it, and plenty of arguments to be had about the details. Nonetheless, 25 years ago TCP/IP was born — and with it, the beginning of the Internet. As the Internet Society says:

"Two of the core protocols that define how data is transported over the Internet are now 25 years old. The Internet Protocol (IP) and the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), together known as TCP/IP, were formally standardised in September 1981 by the publication of RFC 791 and RFC 793. "

If nations are languages with armies, then networks were protocols with marketing departments — until TCP/IP came along. For the first time, the people behind the standard had set out to be as general as possible, to make no assumptions about hardware or operating systems, but instead to create a lingua franca that had no other purpose than to link together whatever it could. The other networking standards around at the time — IBM's SNA, the ITU's X.25, the deep and mysterious SS7 — were tied to commercial interests, were expensive and complex solutions to badly defined problems, or were plain wrong.

TCP/IP was both utilitarian and visionary. It was also hotly opposed: when as a green young hack in the early 1990s I first sat in on presentations with networking companies, I soon found three approaches to TCP/IP. One was to ignore it altogether, and present whatever the company was flogging as the only such thing in existence. (This is still the preferred mode of most companies pitching their wares, and always, always wrong.) One was to dismiss it as transparently unsuitable for serious work; an experimental, flaky and largely unsupported flight of fancy that had no business pretending to be in the same world as the acronym explosion of the real stuff. The final way was to say yes, it's interesting, but it'll never get critical mass. Why, everyone uses the ISO standards — or why, IBM's got its networking all sewn up. Why would they change? Especially for something that didn't even have a real committee behind it, and no commercial imperatives protecting it?

Like a judo master, TCP/IP took those very weaknesses and revealed them as strengths. There were no government committees, seeking consensus from industry and abroad. There was no marketing department, double-checking every proposal in the light of existing and foreseen revenue streams. There were simply engineers and academics, dedicated to designing and creating the universal network, and all they asked was to be left alone to do it.

With nobody important or well-monied caring, the same people were free to give away everything they did. Which they did. The only things that mattered: rough consensus and running code.

And that won. I once tried to write a science-fiction story where everything the proponents of strong intellectual property law enforcement claim was actually true, and the smallest act of creation resulted in something that was rigorously protected: the only society I could come up with where that worked was stultifyingly feudal. As far as I could work out, the burden of enforcing those rights would utterly stifle most of what in the West are considered essential human freedoms, including the abilty to create anything at all of value. It made for a very dull story indeed.

The application of copyright and patent law would certainly have killed TCP/IP. It is a resounding irony that the value of nearly everything the big media companies are trying to control exists largely because of the Internet, which exists only because TCP and IP exist, which exist because they are free.

Man too is born free, but everywhere is subject to the terms and conditions included hereunto in the End User Licensing Agreement. Change the record!

 

Tuesday 17/10/2006

Solar power is the new corporate fish tank. Where once I sat in foyers watching fat carp idly float past the receptionist's head — I really must put more water with it — I'm now liable to be distracted by some display proudly clocking up the kilowatt-hours generated by a bunch of photovoltaic cells on the roof.

Meh. What I think about that is mostly unprintable: put up the results of your company's last energy audit, together with the resultant moves to increase efficiency and reduce waste, and I'll be impressed. But how many facilities managers know how many kilowatt hours each employee uses, let alone 10 ways to reduce that without impacting on working practices?

Innovative thinking has yet to scratch the surface here. There are so many ideas to explore: a desk job encourages indolence and spreading waistline — so have some leg-powered dynamos installed beneath the desk. Fitter workers, brighter screens, lower bills, cooler planet. How many reasons do you need?

Likewise, server design has a long way to go before I'll start to believe all these protestations of enhanced efficiency. For example: hard disk drives have electric motors, which are powered via at least eight conversion and distribution stages between them and the rotating machines in the power station. This is not good. Better by far to couple all the hard-disk shafts together and run them from a common driver — which again can be the IT team peddling. Let's face it, they're normally the ones most in need of exercise.

As for the rest of the server electronics, there may be no way to reduce the power the processors, memory and IO circuits use, but you can at least provide it from a source much closer to the hardware. A system of on-board microgenerators, perhaps, fed by water piped in from a nearby stream — which might also provide relaxation and recreation for employees by a water slide, or perhaps some in-house trout fishing.

Or we may fruitfully return to the ideas of the 1950s, when every home was going to be powered by a soup-tin sized nuclear reactor. With the enhanced techniques the semiconductor industry has created to build micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and other nano-technology marvels, it will now be possible to engineer chip-sized uranium fission devices. I know there'll be concerns about safety, but with WEEE and ROHS legislation already in place for other environmental hazards, company culture and practice is ready for the next step. That's before the benefits of increased attention to detail and concentration which will naturally flow from the threat of meltdown, should an engineer make a mistake while installing, servicing or managing a nuclear-powered server.

I hear you, Dell, HP and IBM, when you talk about increased energy efficiency in IT. But until you start to come up with truly innovative ideas like those listed above, I'm not going to believe you.

 

Wednesday 18/10/2006

Now look here. It's all very well accusing some of us online hacks of deliberately stirring up controversy in areas we know to be sensitive. And when certain big beasts of the American persuasion go on record as saying that they know exactly how to milk the Macintosh fanbase for thousands of hits, and do so cynically and repeatedly, a certain scepticism is not only allowable, but required.

But when we do some straight reporting of a straightforward story from those doyens of respectability, Gartner, and it just happens to say things about the Mac, it's a bit rich to blame the journalist for indulging in some wicked agenda.

But you wouldn't let it lie, would you? The talkbacks are still thundering in, in terms ranging from rank ridicule to fearsome anger. You'd have thought we'd have advocated the outlawing of football, with the teams, leagues and grounds to be devoted to compulsory Morris dancing (an idea of no little merit, as it happens). All we did was tell you what Gartner said, that one of the world's most profitable hardware companies should hand the keys to the kingdom over to an also-ran.

To be honest, we can't quite work out what Gartner's on about either. It seems to be advice along the lines of: "If you can't beat them — and you can't — you might as well join them", advice which sits oddly in the in-tray of a company that said "Think Different" and meant it. What next — ditch the iPod and move over to Dell's DJ range of MP3 players?

Thing is, even if the Gartner report was meant to be an attention-grabbing bit of controversy more than a sober, clear-minded attempt to demonstrate a superior strategy, you lot were just playing into their hands. They knew, as we know, as you know, that anything Mac not conforming to Stalinist levels of agreement with the omniscient, omnipotent Steve, will hit the headlines — and bring in the baying mob.

Don't bay. Don't mob. Show us that attention-whoring Mac copy has run its course, by not piling in with adjectives clattering off the keyboard. A few absolute flops of stories, and sanity will return.

But while you're sitting on your hands, consider what the real Apple story of the year might be. The options backdating scandal has yet to be resolved at Apple — that it happened, is not in doubt. Other companies in the same position have had to restate their results for the past few years — which shouldn't affect Apple. After all, $10bn in the bank is $10bn in the bank. But the other companies have also had to ditch their chief executives, many of whom proclaim their innocence just as strongly as Jobs.

He is by no means guaranteed to survive, no matter what Apple says.

If he goes, what then? Has anyone got any idea? Fanboys, feel free to pitch in.

 

Thursday 19/10/2006

A ridiculous 24 hours of media tarting finishes at lunchtime today, when I make a brief appearance on BBC2's Working Lunch to talk about O2's new European-wide roaming tariff. As usual, I'd talked about what I was going to say with the researcher beforehand — the way presenters seem so well informed is because they've often been told what to say by their interviewees first, even if the interviewee doesn't realise this. However, the rest of the programme overruns and I'm left with two minutes of what was going to be an nice five-minute chat about the European Commission, the rapacity of mobile phone companies, and how to avoid being ripped off by them when abroad.

The reason things are so rushed is that Working Lunch has found itself riding a wave of one particular story, and is devoting a lot of time to both the story and the direct effect it's having on their audience. That story is one that everyone whom you and I know will have mostly ignored — the collapse of Christmas hamper company Farepak, in unusual circumstances that remain unexplained.

I was surprised that such things still went on — Christmas savings companies that collect money over the year and send off a hamper at the end — but with hundreds of thousands of customers putting in hundreds or thousands of pounds, they are substantial concerns. The impact of the company's failure on its clientele is also substantial: these are people who use the schemes precisely because they need to ring-fence money in order to budget for Christmas. With that gone, so are the festivities — and those Farepak customers who are also agents, selling the service on to friends and family, have an extra burden of guilt and disappointment.

And a lot of those affected are natural Working Lunch viewers — the programme's about finance, but it's on in the middle of the day so it's skewed heavily towards the retired and those who are otherwise at home. That demographic is largely invisible to those planning products and services, but it's huge, economically active and deserves attention. Working Lunch was feeling the effects of being one of the few places that could effectively represent and serve that group: the emails were pouring in, the phones ringing and the stories harrowing.

I'm guilty of assuming that everything I write about is part of some youngish, metropolitanish, well-heeled continuum. In the words of The Hitch Hiker's Guide, "Everyone was rich and nobody was poor. At least, nobody who mattered." That's wrong, caustically so, and cuts off a whole range of potentials and responsibilities — in all sorts of ways.

Worth remembering.

 

Friday 20/10/2006

One of the intriguing aspects of the mobile-roaming rip-off is the way it has exposed a fundamental flaw in regulation. There is no European telecomms regulator, no Euro-Ofcom. There are various standards bodies such as ETSI, there are regulators in each state, but there's nobody responsible for the whole lot.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, nobody seems to want one. Commercial concerns are against regulators in general, seeing them as annoying rule makers who always have reasons why something new should not be done for the first time, the existing regulators are jealous of their powers and influence and are no more likely to hand over either without an enormous fight, and the individual users... well, who listens to them?

But that means farragos such as mobile-roaming overcharging get free reign — nobody had responsibility for sorting it out, until a special team was convened. It also means innovations that require new spectrum rules get held back, compared to the speed at which they can advance abroad. In America, the FCC can say "Fiat Wi-Fi" — and lo, it comes to pass. (Actually, it said: "Let a class of services exist within the 2.4 GHz frequency band, and providing they follow some basic rules we don't much care what they are", which is far less biblical but works rather better.) Over here, we and the French and the Spanish and the Germans all get to set individual rules at different times and with different consequences, meaning that while the wireless companies are busy flogging 10 tons of kit in the USA they're still trying to work out what regulatory information to print on the packages over here.

The same's true for ultrawideband. The FCC gave UWB a St Valentine's Day present on 14 February, 2002, by issuing an edict allowing it to operate under fairly relaxed rules. How many European states have done the same thing? Do you want wireless USB at hundreds of megabits a second? The Yanks are getting it (and no, it's not causing any interference). We're not.

But then, who listens to the users? Radio regulation remains one of the last bastions of restraint of trade thinking, and it's hurting. They can get away with it for so long — when was the last time someone down the boozer complained about cross-border microwave allocation rationalisation? — but the seeds of resentment and revolution have been sown.

We gotta fight for our right — to radiate!

 

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